Unpicking the gendered body: new research in the history and material culture of clothes

Thursday, March 24, 2022 at 05:00 PM



Event contact

Alicia Cerreto


Unpicking the gendered body: new research in the history and material culture of clothes

In March we observe Women’s History Month, adding historical context to annual celebrations of International Women’s Day on 8 March. In this Making Public Histories seminar three historians of dress present recent work exploring history and material culture. Their topics range in time from the Elizabethan era to the 1920s and consider how dress functioned to shape gendered bodies in the past.


Dr Sarah Bendall

Shaping the Body in Early Modern England: Foundation Garments and Women’

The structured feminine silhouette of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was achieved using garments called bodies and farthingales, predecessors of later corsets and crinolines. In this talk Sarah Bendall discusses how these garments began to shape and define changing notions of the feminine bodily ideal, social status, sexuality and modesty in early modern England, influencing enduring Western notions of femininity.

Sarah A. Bendall is a Research Fellow at the Gender and Women’s History Research Centre, Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, Australia Catholic University. She is a material culture historian who specialises in the gendered and embodied experiences of dress, as well as the production, trade and consumption of global commodities and fashionable consumer goods between 1500-1800. Her current research examines experimental history approaches, the roles of women in the clothing trades during the seventeenth century, and the widespread use of whaling products in fashion between the years 1500-1800.

Dr Lorinda Cramer

‘“Always to appear respectable” and the “butterflies about town”: Dress in gold-rush Victoria’ 

Gold-rush commentators deplored extravagant dress. Considering it a vulgar display of wealth, they encouraged modest good taste instead. While this began with sensible purchases, it extended to care and maintenance – for gowns were worn over many years and mended, adjusted, bequeathed and handed down.

Dr Lorinda Cramer is a postdoctoral researcher at the Australian Catholic University, currently working on the ARC Discovery project Men’s Dress in Twentieth-Century Australia: Masculinity, Fashion, Social Change. Her research into dress and domestic sewing practices in nineteenth-century Australia was published by Bloomsbury in 2020 as Needlework and Women's Identity in Colonial Australia.

Assoc. Prof. Melissa Bellanta

‘The Shoddy Dropper: Working-Class Men and Fashion in 1920s Australia’

This talk uses the interwar career of the Melbourne con-man, Louis Stirling, to offer insights into Australian working-class men’s relationship to fashion in the roaring twenties. For a brief period, Stirling was a ‘shoddy dropper’: a salesman who sold supposedly-quality suit lengths door-to-door. Considering the rise of shoddy dropping, the talk sheds light on the dress practices and longings of urban working-class men in 1920s Australia, counteracting the tendency only to think about women when considering fashion in the day.  

Melissa Bellanta is Associate Professor of Modern History in the Australian Catholic University’s National School of Arts. She is a social, cultural and gender historian with interests in material culture, fashion, the history of emotions and masculinities, particularly in late-nineteenth and twentieth-century Australia.  


Margaret Anderson, Director of Old Treasury Building will host the evening, and HCV Board Member Associate Professor Susie Protschky will facilitate the Q&A.


The seminar is part of an ongoing series, Making Public Histories, that is offered jointly by the Monash University History Program, the History Council of Victoria and the Old Treasury Building. Each seminar aims to explore issues and approaches in making public histories. The seminars are open, free of charge, to anyone interested in the creation and impact of history in contemporary society. Click HERE to learn about other events in the series.

We thank the series sponsors, Monash University Publishingthe Monash University History Program and the Old Treasury Building.


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The History Council of Victoria Incorporated (HCV) is the peak body for history in the Australian state of Victoria. Its vision is to connect Victorians with history and to inspire engagement with the past, their identity and the world today. The HCV champions the work of historians and the value of history. It recognises that history can be written about any place, any person, any period. The HCV advocates why history matters.

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The HCV was formed as an advisory body in 2001 and incorporated in 2003. It comprises representatives from cultural and educational institutions and heritage bodies; history teachers and curriculum advisors; academic and professional historians; and local, Indigenous, community and specialist history organisations.

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The History Council of Victoria acknowledges the State Library of Victoria and the Public Record Office Victoria for supply of the archival images that appear on this website.

We acknowledge the National Film and Sound Archive for the right to use of the video footage on the home page, titled "Melbourne: Life in Australia (1966)".

Image credits

  • Italian sailors on ship at Port Melbourne 1938, Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria
  • Chinese procession in Collins near Elizabeth Street 1901, Harvie & Sutcliffe, photographers, State Library of Victoria
  • People’s homes, Aboriginal station Coranderrk 1878, Fred Kruger Photographer, State Library of Victoria
  • Chinese nurses at Children’s Hospital under scholarship 1947, Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria
  • Ladies physical culture class VRI Melbourne c1931, Public Record Office Victoria VPRS 12903/P0001, 011/02
  • Melbourne Cup, Derby and Oaks Day, Flemington Racecourse 1936, Public Record Office Victoria VPRS 12903/P0001/4802, 372/30
  • Flinders Street viaduct at foot of Market Street with advertisement for McRobertson’s Chocolate on bridge, Public Record Office Victoria VPRS 12800/P0003, ADV 1342